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Terence Blanchard: Composing opera with jazz harmonics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2012 - The buzz at the opening of the 2012-13 Jazz at the Bistro season was a little different this year. There was the usual anticipation of a first-rate concert by an internationally acclaimed musician. But the regular jazz fans were augmented by an increased contingent from area arts organizations such as the Regional Arts commission and Opera Theatre.

The reason: Terence Blanchard’s Quintet was playing.

Certainly, Blanchard’s impressive resume as a jazz artist would draw a crowd.

But here in St. Louis the excitement is also about the premiere of the opera “Champion” that Blanchard is composing for Opera Theatre in conjunction with Jazz St. Louis, the nonprofit that runs the Bistro’s music series and provides jazz education outreach events and concerts beyond the club.

As I wait for Blanchard to taxi over from his hotel for a pre-performance interview, Gene Dobbs Bradford, executive director of Jazz St. Louis, provided background on how the concept for an opera with a jazz musician as the composer came about.

“More than two years ago, I got together with Opera Theatre and discussed how we wanted to collaborate on a project that would involve an opera with jazz elements,” recalls Bradford. “We were really hoping to bring these two musical worlds together, but we knew we had to find the right composer.”

Bradford brought up several names, but the discussion always returned to one person – Terence Blanchard.

“It just seemed that Terence was the person who kept coming back to the top of the list,” explains Bradford. “One, I knew that he already understood the commissioning process from his involvement with film scores. [Blanchard composed music for Broadway and more than 40 films – including many for director Spike Lee.] And through that work, I also knew he was experienced in writing for different ensembles – including an orchestra.”

As we were talking, Blanchard and the band arrived, and I went upstairs to join him for an interview in the cramped “green room” where musicians get ready to perform. With his trumpet constantly by his side, Blanchard talked about his introduction into the experience of composing an opera.

When he first received the call from Bradford about doing an opera, he said he jokingly told him that he must have the wrong number. But he soon had a very different feeling.

“I actually had a very spiritual reaction to the possibility of writing music for an opera – for a couple of reasons,” says Blanchard. “I grew up listening to opera, because my father loved it. It was a passion for him. And I also remembered what my first composition teacher, Roger Dickerson, always used to say to me about writing for films. He told me that was a great experience, and that someday I would really be able to do something with that. So when I got that call, those were the things that immediately ran through my head. I said, ‘Yes.’”


Blanchard said initial discussions about the subject of the opera touched on Hurricane Katrina, a topic he decided was too close and too emotional for him to deal with then. Another possible theme was an opera involving boxing, which immediately resonated with Blanchard, an amateur boxer himself.

“Boxing is something I’ve really gotten into, and I had actually just read a biography of Emile Griffith called ‘Nine, Ten and Out!’. There are so many reasons I think his story is so appropriate. He is most remembered for his Friday Night TV fight in 1962 that resulted in the death of Benny Paret. But Griffith also was dealing with homosexuality. And that was very difficult for any athlete to deal with at that time … even today.”

With Blanchard on board to compose the music and the subject matter in place, the project was titled, “Champion,” and Michael Cristofer, the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, film director and actor was brought in to write the story. For Blanchard, the starting point in writing the music evolved from Cristofer’s libretto. But first the basic frame of the opera had to be decided – a creative process very different from Blanchard’s previous work.

“First of all, I realized being involved in this opera was going to be very different from writing for film,” explains Blanchard. “With a film, I wasn’t involved in where and how they were going to shoot it, or who was in it. But I’ve been involved in ‘Champion’ from the very beginning.

“Michael decided we were going to use three different Emile characters in the opera – one from his present day old age, two portraying a young man and boxer, and also as a little boy,” Blanchard says. “And in addition to having two acts, we split the story into 10 rounds – like a boxing match and with a bell to start and end the rounds. Only at that point did I get to the challenge of making my music work with the words”

Once Blanchard experienced a read through by the actors, things began to fall into place creatively for him.

Serving the opera

“Hearing the actors speak the words really opened things up for me,” recalls Blanchard. “I then spent a lot of time speaking the text myself, trying to find rhythms and the emphasis on certain words. That’s when the music began to take shape and take hold. That’s when you get to that magical point when it takes on a life of its own.”

Blanchard was also firm in his belief that he wanted the music he composed not to overshadow the overall scope of the opera – in terms of both the characters and the dramatic action.

“I really didn’t want the opera to be more about the music than anything else. I know some great composers in the past have done that, but to me, that sometimes sounds awkward. So I wanted the music to serve the opera – especially in terms of what I was writing for the voices.

“I was familiar with writing for an orchestra, but writing for voice – especially in an opera – was a challenge. While you may have a smaller range in writing for voice, you have to remember the singers are doing this for two hours – and you really don’t want to kill them!”

Blanchard was also adamant that “Champion” is not a “jazz opera.” He – and everyone at Opera Theatre – is calling it “an opera with jazz.” According to Blanchard, that phrase more accurately describes the manner in which he is attempting to use jazz idioms within an operatic frame.

“I talked to my former teacher, Roger, and he told me that throughout the centuries, folk music has often been the basis for operatic music,” Blanchard says. “So I decided to use the rhythmic and harmonic concepts of jazz in my compositional approach to ‘Champion.’ Harmonically, it’s going to sound like jazz. I’m not writing lines like a classical composer would – except for some of the arias. And there are definitely moments where there’s a subtle feeling of jazz changes – but without the orchestra really improvising on them.”

Blanchard has completed writing the music for “Champion,” and the next major step in getting the opera set for performance will be a full orchestral rehearsal in October.

“That’s actually going to happen in Cincinnati,” says Blanchard. “I have to admit I’m a little nervous about that coming up! I’m sure there will be some changes, and we’ll of course have things change as we go through rehearsals. But that’s the last big hurdle musically for me as far as composing.”

Only the inner circle of those involved in the project through Opera Theatre and Jazz St. Louis have heard Blanchard’s work. And one who has, Gene Dobbs Bradford, is effusive in his praise.

“I heard some of the music when Terence first played some themes on piano in 2010,” he recalls. “And I’ve heard other parts as well. And I have to tell you, it’s really astonishing. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. In a way, it reminds me of (Stephen) Sondheim … but hipper – a LOT hipper!”

In terms of the collaborative process involved in bring a jazz composer into the world of opera, Blanchard and Bradford each offered a final perspective on the process.

“It’s been a great experience so far,” Blanchard says. “I can’t think of a better group of people to work with than Opera Theatre and Jazz St. Louis. Everyone involved in this is keeping their eyes on the ball, and there are no ego or turf wars. Everyone’s on the same page and understands their responsibility. It’s been amazing to see!”

“You know, arts organizations are always talking about collaboration,” Bradford says. “There’s a genuine desire to make that happen. But it’s so hard to find a project that really makes sense. And this one has been wonderful. I’m really pleased to be part of it.”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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